To me it seems probable given the high level of hostility in the UK to membership of the European Union (EU) that in 2016 at the promised referendum, a majority of voters will opt to remove the UK from the union. I no longer mix with politicians but do come across middle and working class members of the public who seem happy, especially at this time of the year, to talk about politics. They assume the EU is a bad thing and that leaving it will 'free' the UK from all its rules. I was speaking to such a man just before Christmas and for me he summed up the next difficulty that the UK faces which the government does not seem to have considered, but I imagine (I hope) that civil servants are working on contingency plans for even now.
I said that the question of whether we left the EU seemed settled. However, the question of what relationship we would have with it afterwards had to be hammered out. I used the example of three countries which are outside the EU but have very different relationships with it: Norway, Morocco and the USA. He dismissed this as any serious concern, because he said the referendum would simply be in/out. I accepted that that was the case, but said that someone had to work out the precise details of the relationship. I asked him what he thought the relationship would be like and he seemed to believe he could have his cake and eat it.
Norway is often cited as the model that Britain would favour, but it is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which means that while it has no right to vote on any EU legislation, it still has to accept the free movement of EU citizens into its country. Now, the free movement of EU citizens is one of the key reasons why parties like UKIP and fellow travellers want to leave the EU. Consequently the UK moving into the EEA would not remove that aspect.
Morocco is an associate member of the EU. This might be the model most favoured by those seeking UK exit from the EU. There are a range of associate agreements; they were started in 1961. However, typically they allow the country to have access to specific markets, e.g. in agricultural or industrial goods or more recently free trade with the EU. They have been focused on the Mediterranean littoral, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but there are agreements with former colonies and states across the world. Interestingly even this kind of relationship implies that the country works towards political, economic, trade and human rights reform to bring it in line with the EU. Given that the UK is not a full democracy (the House of Lords is unelected as is the Head of State) and is seeking to abandon human rights legislation, we might find it difficult to get an agreement. However, this one seems to be the status that people would favour, retaining the trade privileges without being bothered with the mobility of people or quotas.
The USA is friendly to the EU and has some bilateral agreements such as on extradition and on airline ownership. There have been efforts at tariff agreements but anyone who has bought anything from the USA or tried to sell stuff there knows you get customs duties slapped on them at one end or the other. It is the administration of these which is as painful as the actual cost. If the UK wants to be out of the EU as much as the USA does, then this would be the model for selling even to France or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where much more stringent border controls would have to be introduced. The UK could close its doors to anyone under this model just as the USA does and we could insist even daytrippers from France needed a visa if we so chose.
The thing is, no-one is yet speaking about the model that the UK will end up with, no doubt at the end of a lot of discussion. You cannot simply walk out of an organisation you have been tied into for over forty years, especially if you want to keep many of the privileges that a majority of the anti-EU Britons seem to think are their right and not the result of that membership.
We spoke about the need to disengage from EU legislation in the British legal system. The UK would be free from EU quotas on farming and fishing, but human rights legislation which is at the top of the list for many of those opposed to the EU, does not come from the EU, it comes from an often forgotten body, the Council of Europe which is entirely separate. Unlike the EEC (the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU), the UK was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949. The EEC was not established until 1957 and the UK did not join it until 1973. The Council of Europe has 47 members; the EU only 28. Thus, if we are to purge human rights from British law, the UK will also have to leave the Council of Europe and, as yet, that is not on the cards.
I asked the man whether he knew how difficult it is for people from outside the EU and EEA to travel to countries in the EU. Anyone in the UK who has relations from Australia or South Africa or a host of other countries (though US citizens do not need a visa for tourism) knows how difficult it is for them to simply 'pop over' to France from the UK. Generally it means 8 hours being interviewed at the French Embassy in London in order to be issued for a visa lasting 6 months. The man said he was sure the French would not impose that on the British and surely we would go back to the situation in 1972. I said that was making big assumptions about the willingness of the other EU states to tolerate the British leaving perhaps even the EEA but still making use of the benefits. I also pointed out that the world of 2016 is very different from the world of 1972 in terms of protecting borders. Given that those who want to leave the EU want to close the gates on EU citizens coming to our country, why can we assume the French and others will not simply do the same in return?
From this I moved on to how many Britons live outside the UK in other EU countries. There are 761,000 living in Spain alone, probably augmented by about another 200,000 who live there for part of the year. 200,000 Britons live in France and again many others own property there; 115,000 live in Germany; 44,000 in the Netherlands; 28,000 in Belgium; 26,000 in Italy and 18,000 in Greece. There are around another 48,000 in other EU countries. This does not include UK students who study in EU universities; 9,500 UK students study in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. Many of the Netherlands 41 universities have hundreds of British students. With free movement of citizens Britons can apply to these universities and in some countries like Denmark have to pay no fees. With numerous courses taught entirely in English (as these appeal to Chinese students as well) it is very easy to do. However, once we leave the EU this will stop. I know many who support the UK leaving the EU have no time for students anyway, but is is just another factor. The man I was talking to said he did not think Spain or France would eject Britons resident in those countries. I said: why not? Given that UKIP has spoken of sending EU citizens home what is to stop these other countries doing the same in return? An influx of over 1 million Britons being sent home, many of those from Spain being elderly, is going to be worked out. Remember, before Greece joined the EEC it did not permit foreigners to own property in the country and Australia does not allow this either.
This is one challenge for those pressing for exit from the EU. They assume that the rest of the EU will let the UK go quietly and to retain many of the privileges that it has in relation to those states, unchallenged. No-one seems to be thinking this through and simply making assumptions that it will be all very nice for the UK and that EU states will not be resentful to Britain. I know Britons think their country is special, but they have to recognise that other countries see it very differently. The UK has long been a troublemaker in the EU and is exacerbating this situation at a time when the EU has enough to deal with handling terrorist attacks and the refugee situation. The UK is making no concessions but in return expects the EU to just go on allowing tens of thousands of Britons to live, work and own property and to travel freely back and forth even when the UK is trying to stop that for EU citizens coming in. To expect the rest of the EU to tolerate such treatment of their citizens and not seek a balance against UK people, is incredibly naive. If we must leave the EU we need to be far better prepared for the consequences than is currently the case.